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CIPA Internet Porn Law Tossed Out

A federal appeals court in Philadelphia has tossed out the law aimed at restricting Internet access in public libraries, ruling that the Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA) was in violation of the First Amendment.

The court issued its ruling Friday arguing that the use of filtering software in schools and public libraries blocked access to Web sites that contain substantial amounts of protected speech. The ruling comes as a big win for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the American Library Association, while filed twin-lawsuits last March to have the law tossed out on First Amendment and due-process grounds.

The ACLU roundly applauded the decision. "The court today barred the government from turning librarians into thought police armed with clumsy blocking programs," said Ann Beeson, litigation director of the ACLU's Technology and Liberty Program, which led the challenge.

"The court found that these programs are inherently flawed and will inevitably prevent library patrons all over the country from accessing valuable speech online," she added.

The ACLU's lawyers had argued in weeks of testimony that the law was unconstitutional, unenforceable and vague and would deny people without home computers full access to information online.

In its 195-page decision, the court sided with the civil liberties groups, nothing they were worried that library patrons might be too embarrassed or lose their right to be anonymous because the CIPA law required that they seek permission to have the filtering software removed.

The law, which was enacted in December 2000 in part to protect minors from access to Internet pornography, requires schools and libraries to use the filtering software to shield minors from adult material but, because it called for adults to get permission to access certain information, it raised the ire of the civil liberties and library groups. The law also blocked federal funding to libraries that did not install the software.

In its ruling, the judges agrees the use of filtering technology blocked portions of protected speech "whose suppression serves no legitimate government interest."

"Any public library that adheres to CIPA's conditions will necessarily restrict patrons access to a substantial amount of protected speech in violation of the First Amendment," according to the ruling.

Lawyers for the Justice Department are expected to appeal the ruling, which would go directly to the U.S Supreme Court.

It is the third time constitutional challenges have been made against laws aimed at curbing Internet pornography. The Supreme Court recently reversed a U.S. appeals court ruling which found the 1998 Child Online Protection Act (COPA) too broad in scope. In an 8-1 vote, the justices ruled that the appeals court could not bar enforcement of the law on the basis that it relies on community standards to identify harmful material.

The COPA law, which is different from the CIPA law affected by Friday's ruling, was intended to make it a crime to place sexually explicit material on the Internet where minors can view it. The law required commercial Web site operators to use credit cards or other adult access systems to prevent minors from viewing the material. COPA imposes criminal and civil penalties of up to $50,000 per day for violations.

Congress drafted COPA in an effort to create a more narrowly defined law than the Communications Decency Act (CDA) of 1996, which the Supreme Court struck down in 1997 as unconstitutional, saying the CDA "place(d) an unacceptably heavy burden on protected speech."

Immediately after the passage of COPA, the ACLU teamed up with privacy rights groups -- Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) and Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) -- and filed suit alleging that COPA violated the First and Fifth amendments to the Constitution.

Among other complaints, the watchdog groups said COPA:

  • Imposes serious burdens on constitutionally-protected speech, including materials like movies and television programs when disseminated through commercial Web sites Fails to serve the government's interest in protecting children because it won't effectively prevent children from seeing inappropriate material originating from outside the U.S. available through Internet resources beyond the World Wide Web, like chat rooms and e-mail.
  • Does not represent the least restrictive means of regulating speech because the Supreme Court has found that blocking and filtering software may give parents more effective ability to screen undesirable content without burdening speech.